- Mixed-ish. ABC. Tuesday, September 24, 9 p.m.
- Emergence. ABC. Tuesday, September 24, 10 p.m.
- Stumptown. ABC. Wednesday, September 25, 10 p.m.
- Evil. CBS. Thursday, September 26, 10 p.m.
In the onslaught of stupidity, cupidity and (to anyone who watches it long enough) hyperacidity that is the 2019 broadcast TV season, there's a brief ceasefire for the next few days.
Four intensely watchable pilots make their debuts in mid-week. In each case, their survivability ranges from questionable to doubtful. But you might as well watch while you've got the chance; trust me, the season isn't going to burst into vivid Technicolor life like The Wizard Of Oz. (And—spoiler alert—no houses get dropped onto witches' heads, either.)
The best single hour of the fall season is ABC's Stumptown, a hyperviolent noir which starts with a victim escaping from her kidnappers with not-doctor-recommended usages of a fire extinguisher, a seatbelt and her teeth. It only gets progressively more deranged from there.
Based on a rough-and-tumble comic book of the same name, the sly, pulpy Stumptown features Cobie Smulders (Friends from College) as Dex Parios, back in her hometown of Portland after five tours in Afghanistan.
Once a decorated military intelligence officer, Parios is a PTSD burnout who's sardonic, drunken, and mostly at the end of her rope. Her main forms of recreation are random hookups and losing her disability check shooting craps at an Indian casino.
About the only thing tethering Parios to the real world is her need to somehow provide for a younger brother who has Down Syndrome (Cole Sibus, A&E's Born This Way). That's why she takes a fishy private investigator gig hunting down the missing teenage daughter of the casino owner, and immediately the fists, lead and even cars start flying.
Like any good noir detective, Parios has a past pockmarked with tragedy, a welter of withered relationships and a nasty co-dependence with the local cops, capably played by the admiring Michael Ealy (The Following) and the disdainful Camryn Manheim (The Practice).
Between the intricately staged violence and Smulders' wonderfully wisecracking, knuckle-busting performance, the Stumptown pilot is an intense experience—so much so that it's hard to believe the rest of the series can hold up to the same standard. How many errant teenagers are out there? Well … okay, but how many are worth driving your car off a bridge for? How often is a fire extinguisher going to be at the right place at the right time to bash somebody's head in with it? How many guys' shirts can Parios rip from their six-pack abs before there's a shortage?
The problem with ABC's otherwise entertaining Emergence is similar: How many airline catastrophes can reveal vast, cosmic and hopelessly confusing conspiracies before everybody goes back to taking the train? Count 'em up: ABC's Lost. Fox's Fringe. NBC's Manifest. Airliners have become the Grassy Knoll of conspiracy TV.
Emergence follows a now-familiar pattern: In a weather-beaten seaside town on a remote Long Island promontory, there's a short power failure, followed by a weird Northern Lights-type display and then, of course, a plane crash on the beach.
When town police chief Jo Evans (Allison Tolman of the TV version of Fargo) arrives at the crash site, she finds a little girl (Alexa Swinton, Billions) with no memory of anything, including her own name, but too unscathed to have emerged from the smoldering plane wreck.
Even more mysterious: the flock of NTSB investigators who show up within minutes of the crash demanding custody of the girl and threatening to arrest Evans' officers when they don't hand her over. "NTSB doesn't have arrest authority," replies the chief in a wintry voice. "I do." But she has no answer to the little girl's warning: "If I remember, I'll have to go away."
Emergence's pilot is a pleasantly spooky hour, with some not-all-that-faint echoes of Netflix's Stranger Things. It's aided immeasurably by the casting of Tolman as a size-16 protagonist who is neither a vixen or a superhero, just a good cop with decent human instincts.
But you can practically hear space aliens whispering in the background of the Emergence soundtrack of time travel and alternate universes to come. Ultimately, Emergence is likely to be an exercise in nostalgia for the Golden Age of air travel, when you worried about your luggage getting lost rather than being sucked through a hole in the time-space continuum.
There was a lot of optimism about CBS' new crime drama Evil because its production team is led by Robert and Michelle King, who created three of this century's most intelligent television shows—law-and-politics drama The Good Wife, its spinoff The Good Fight and BrainDead, a splendidly contemptuous vision of American politics in which Washington is taken over by brain-eating parasites. (No, not a reality show.)
Evil, unfortunately for its Nielsen points if not for viewers, takes a more cerebral approach that lacks the snap, crackle and pop of the other King shows. It's a sort of X-Files in which investigators are troubled by metaphysical questions of morality rather than drooling bug-eyed monsters.
Katja Herbers, lately one of the naked but soulless (or maybe I've got that reversed) robots on Westworld, plays forensic psychologist Kristen Bouchard. A frequent prosecution witness against serial killers, she attacks their insanity defenses after administering tests that aren't exactly subtle. ("True or false: I like the sound of a woman screaming.")
While pursuing her latest target, a knife-wielder named Orson who has chopped up three families, Bouchard bumps into a couple of men who, she assumes, are defense witnesses coaching up the defendant. To her surprise, they turn out to be Catholic Church investigators who suspect Orson is possessed by a demon.
Many of the symptoms that the Church team associates with demons—say, shouting curses and threats in Latin—are easily faked. Other facts, though, leave Bouchard nonplused. How would Orson know details about her marriage, including her growing estrangement for her absentee husband?
At the same time, she starts having luridly detailed and sexually disturbing nightmares featuring Orson's purported demon. And as Bouchard's befuddlement grows, she gets a surprise: an offer to join the church team as a professional skeptic, to be matched against the true-believer investigator David Acosta (Mike Colter, who had a recurring role as a Chicago gang leader on The Good Wife), a priest in training.
"Possession looks a lot like insanity," Acosta concedes. "And insanity looks a lot like possession. I need someone to help me distinguish between the two."
Herbers and Colter play well off one another as Evil prowls the borders between science and religion, determinism and morality. And complicating their search is that they both believe in the existence of non-supernatural evil, of "people out there who do bad things and encourage others to do bad things, for the sheer pleasure of it," as Acosta puts it.
Though Evil manages some truly unnerving moments, particularly the scenes with the lascivious demon, it's more about ideas than the pea-soup-vomiting stuff audiences usually expect from stories about demons and exorcism. In post-Kardashian America, it may be too late to convince viewers that evil is more than a matter of table manners.
Like Evil, ABC's Mixed-ish seems redolent of an earlier television time—but in this case, it was inevitable. Mixed-ish is the third franchise in the Black-ish empire that executive producer Kenya Barris launched in 2014. And perhaps Barris (or somebody; the show credits list nine executive producers) has recaptured some of the magic of his original work.
Black-ish started out as light-hearted commentary on the cultural conflicts in homes of the black bourgeoise, and most of the white characters were clueless and bumbling. But in the past couple of years, many of them have devolved to malicious racism. (The change may not be ideological. Barris' life has been a bumpy one recently; he left his production contract with ABC behind for Netflix last year, and he recently filed for divorce from his wife Rania, upon whom Black-ish character Rainbow Johnson is based.)
Meanwhile, the second franchise—Grown-ish, in which the family's teenage daughter goes off to college, was so insipidly derivative that ABC demoted it to its kiddie network Freeform, where the audience is too young to have seen the John Hughes films from which it was ripped off.
Mixed-ish has a much fresher feel than the other shows. It's a prequel to Black-ish, with young stage actress Arica Himmel playing an adolescent version of Rainbow Johnson, who grew up in a racially mixed family in a rural commune.
As the show opens in the summer of 1985, the commune has just been shut down and the family has moved into to the suburban home of Rainbow's wealthy white grandfather. It's full of new experiences for the three siblings: Television. Flush toilets. The Second Amendment. (Grandpa, a Reagan Republican, has decreed a constitutional right to bear squirt guns.)
Not everything in Mixed-ish is high-spirited, though. The most startling thing to the kids is not consumerist technology but the rigid identity-politics concept of race, which didn't exist on the commune. The mixed-race Johnson kids are neither white nor black, in the views of their schoolmates and even some members of their long-estranged families.
"They're black and white," Rainbow's mom pleads with one particularly strident member of her family. "Don't make them choose sides." The kids, though, are quick to sense which way the winds are blowing. When Rainbow says the kids should remain above racial definitions, her younger sister retorts: "I think there couldn't be a whiter thing to say." Faintly, on the soundtrack, you can hear Cher singing, "Half-breed, how I learned to hate the word… ."